Sometimes, the fates align and everything comes together to deliver an absolutely and inarguably bloody brilliant day of cross country. Today at Burghley was one of those rare, special days: the weather was glorious (and yes, the first rule of journalism is that you should never talk about the weather — but this is eventing in Britain, so cut us some slack here), the cross country course was influential in that old-school way that is so often pined for, there were no tricks, traps, or problems for the ground jury to puzzle over, and the thrills and spills, while certainly coming up thick and fast, ended up being just those: tumbles and glances without any disasters. At the end of the day, we’ve been graced with the sort of leaderboard that eventing dreams are made of — and the stories that brought us all to this point are as wonderful as the people and horses who made them happen.
Gushy? Sure, we won’t deny that — but what is this sport if not a melting pot of hopes, and dreams, and inextinguishable passion, tempered all too often by heartbreak and injury and seemingly endless disappointment? (Okay, and mud. So much mud.) When Eventing Jesus smiles upon us and gives us the glory days — well, we’re damn sure going to celebrate them.
Sixty-eight horse and rider combinations left the start box today to tackle Captain Mark Phillips‘ big, bold course, and forty-five of those made it home. Of those forty-five, seven picked up cross-country jumping penalties, and of the thirty-eight clear rounds, just four made it home inside the optimum time of eleven minutes, eleven seconds.
It’s always going to be an interesting day when the placings after dressage are so achingly close and when the first few riders out of the start box are some of the most experienced in the field, and yet still become the mistresses of the ticking clock. Today, just ten seconds separated the dressage leader from overnight tenth — and after that, it got even tighter, with a matter of seconds between the majority of the rest of the riders. Lest anyone have any lingering doubts, this was not going to be a dressage competition.
Oliver Townend and MHS King Joules, third-placed after dressage, were our pathfinders this morning, and the notoriously strong gelding gave the crowds a few gasping moments earlier on in the course, settling around the three minute mark to produce the first of the day’s clear rounds. They added 10.4 time penalties, enough to put them in 10th place overnight — but it was an early indicator that things were about to be shaken up in a major way.
“It was a tricky enough course to ride,” he said after his first trip around the track. “He was balls-out early on, but he kept jumping everything I put in front of him. He’s the strongest I’ve ever ridden, and the course is the biggest I’ve ever jumped — it walked massive, but it jumped even bigger. Then you add in the toughest terrain in the world.”
Round after round followed suit with top horses and riders coming in handfuls of seconds over the optimum time — but when last year’s runners-up Piggy French and Vanir Kamira delivered a blazing fast round, coming in with just 1.2 time penalties, it began to look achievable.
“She’s a fabulous little mare — you could strap a monkey to her and she’d go and run cross country,” said the delighted rider, who sits in third place going into tomorrow’s final phase. “She just needs balancing, as she’s quite a downhill horse, but she’s such a game little girl, and I knew she had it in her because of how well she did last year. Now I’m just kicking myself for that three seconds over the time — she’s so full of running, and if I could go straight back out and do it again, I’d shave those off. I just gave her those moments to refill her lungs, but she was buzzing, so I could have made them up.”
Piggy, who is one of a plethora of successful women who balance top-level competition with new motherhood, has overcome a long run of bad luck and come back to this level in the best form of her career.
“I just really enjoy the game, and I’ve got fabulous horses and great people around. When you’ve had a really bad time and know how bad things can be with horses, you just crack on when you can. I don’t think you ever dare to think it could go well — you just have to take each day as it comes.”
Of motherhood, she laughs: “I often wonder what I did before I had a child — he takes so much time! But my partner, Tom March, is brilliant, and we muddle through. I do want to be a proper mum, so I ride in the morning, and spend the afternoons doing that.”
Once Piggy’s fast round was in the bag, we witnessed two astonishingly quick rounds through the afternoon. The first belonged to Tina Cook and Star Witness, who were the first combination to make the time, coming two seconds under to climb from 62nd to 12th position.
“I had to trust that I was on a Thoroughbred — I needed to kick ass today!” she said. “The only way I’d get near the top ten was to go inside the time. But I still had to work — we lack runs, and with his kissing spines, I try not to do too much, but I promise his owners a four-star a year. He’s amazing at this — so honest. But I think Dickie [Waygood] and Chris [Bartle, the Team GB coaches] were holding their breath!”
The next of the fast rounds was delivered by Irish rider Esib Power, who came in eight seconds under the time with Soladoun, moving from equal 37th to 7th place.
“It’s great to be back at this level,” said Esib, so nicknamed because as a child, her brother couldn’t say ‘Elizabeth’. She always expected her successful former racehorse to be fast, but was impressed with how he stepped up to the level: “I’ve never had him off the bridle before, so that was a new feeling — you can’t take any liberties out there. It felt like hard work, so I’m glad it looked classy. It certainly lived up to it’s reputation — it’s hard work out there! Look, it’s what you dream of — I’d love to have more horses to do this with, but for now, I’m happy to have got this one here.”
And then it was anyone’s game. Harry Meade added just 1.6 time penalties, holding fourth overnight with Away Cruising, and local rider Richard Jones and Alfies Clover added 2.8 to move from 33rd to 9th. Andrew Nicholson had come close with his first horse — Jet Set IV added 2.4 time penalties and moved from 29th to 8th place — but his second horse, the four-star debutante Swallow Springs, added nothing at all to his dressage score, moving from equal 16th to 5th place overnight.
“He might be young, but I rode him like he’s a four-star professional,” said Andrew. “When I’m positive, he’s positive — he’d happily have done three strides through the Leaf Pit. He’s a proper horse. If I ride him more delicately, he’ll dangle his legs and offer to run out — he likes you to be in charge and he’s been naughty in the past. He bucked me off in the warm-up once.”
Andrew has high hopes for the talented up-and-comer: “Nereo always felt like he hated it here, even though he did so well — I always thought that maybe he got wise to it but after riding the younger ones who love it, you realise that some of them just don’t like Burghley.”
He was also full of liberal praise for the course design, suggesting that other designers might seek to emulate Mark Phillips’ methods.
“I loved that there were no hidden traps — for example, I jumped in big to the Trout Hatchery and changed my plan, and it was great that I could do that and still be clear. Mark has got the measure of the flag rule — there were no questions about 50 penalties today, because the horses could always see the flags. Then they either jumped or they didn’t.”
Oliver Townend‘s final ride of the day — and the final horse to leave the start box — was last year’s winner Ballaghmor Class, who managed to produce something even more impressive than his effort of last year, finishing eight seconds within the time to level with Esib Power as the fastest ride of the day. They sit second overnight on their dressage score of 27.9.
“He was unbelievable,” said Oliver. “I didn’t know if he’d get the trip at the speed we needed — it’s not in his pedigree, but it’s in his mind. He felt like a different horse altogether from last year — last year, it was pure naivety, and me throwing in big questions that he answered every time. This year, the track didn’t suit many, but he dug deep and put his head down — he was workmanlike. He’s turned from a boy into a man. It’s a funny old job, though — sometimes I think I’ve done a good job and they kill me for it. Today, I thought I was a bit desperate and didn’t give him the best ride, but everyone’s praising me! The dream is very much still alive, and for now, I’m just enjoying having three clear at Burghley. I’ve had great times on some of my horses but to have them on horses I’ve produced is a different feeling. It’s a different sport for me now. I’m a bit of a mess, anyway — I try to keep my head down and keep quiet, but when I cross the finish line, I just want to burst into tears.”
But for all of the astonishing efforts across the board, it was to be Tim Price‘s day. His foot-perfect round on Ringwood Sky Boy added just 0.4 time penalties to his dressage score, giving him a well-earned lead after a ride that made Burghley look like the Pony Club.
“I’ve had some thrill rides on this horse — in the wrong way!” said Tim. “Finally, though, we’re finding what works. The course felt like an old friend, and the horse is my old friend, and it all just came together. He’s not a fast horse but I took a little bit of experience from my last horse. Oz knows how to dig deep and work under duress, and he did. You’ve got to be in it to win it — he’s not a quick horse, and I had to take tight lines to get it done. I didn’t notice my watch at all, other than a few beeps in the background. It’s a journey with horses — what I’ve learned is that you have to take each day as it comes, be grateful for a healthy horse each day, and trust in your preparation. That’s worked so far.”
Buck Davidson finished the best of the American contingent, climbing a placing from 16th to 15th after a quick clear round saw them add just eight time penalties to their dressage score of 32.1.
“It started off a little hairy; he sort of spooked at the crowd at the fifth fence and I thought we’d stop, but then he was very good and fought where he needed to out there,” said Buck. “He’s a bit tricky, so I had to be careful to get him back after that. He seemed to get better as he went though — he’s a first-class horse and I want him to be in the same league as My Boy Bobby and Ballynoe Castle. He gave me all his effort today, and now I have to do the same for him tonight.”
Two of our American representatives were on the redemption trail after falls ended their campaigns last year, and both completed today’s tough cross country test.
Andrea Baxter and Indy 500 clocked up 20 penalties at the final skinny element of the Leaf Pit, but went on to complete the rest of the course without any issues, adding a further 26 time penalties. They sit 41st going into tomorrow’s final horse inspection and showjumping.
“I was so on the fence about going straight [at the Leaf Pit] or doing the option — I thought she would probably do the bank in the straight route perfectly, but skinnies like that are as bad as right-handed corners for her,” explained Andrea. “I saw that everyone else had been opting for the long route, so I thought I would do — and actually, I think she’d have been better if I’d just gone straight. But you live and learn! I was maybe just a little bit cautious because I’d fallen last year, but after that 20, she was spot-on.”
While many of our Americans abroad are able to make the trip due to the funding and grants available through the USEF and USEA, Andrea took a slightly different route to making her way back to the UK.
“I came here all on my own, but I’m very lucky to have some really awesome friends in California who put together a lovely fundraiser, which raised about ten grand, and then I won another seven or eight at Rebecca Farms CCI3*, which helped. I’d love to aim her at Badminton next, so I guess I’ve got to go home and sell everything I’ve got to try to come back!”
“You never quite know what you’ll have until you get to these competitions — sometimes you come and you’ve got the funding and you feel all the pressure, but then sometimes you do it all by yourself and you think, ‘oh god – why have I done this to myself?’ But this year, I played it safe because of our last attempt, and it’s frustrating, but it’s an upward curve and it gives me plenty of new knowledge to bring back to my clients in America, and we can use it to build up.”
Lillian Heard made light work of the Leaf Pit, her nemesis of last year with LCC Barnaby, but caught a 20 at the influential Rolex Combination at 15b, the Vicarage Vee replica fence.
“I got through the Leaf Pit — and I finished, so that’s good!” she laughed upon completion. “We had a frustrating 20 — he tried to jump but our line was just outside the flag so we went the other way. We went long at the Dairy Mound, too — I knew he was tired, and maybe he could have used one or two more gallops. I’ve never felt him get tired in his life, but he got tired today — if you took the jumps here and put them on their own, they wouldn’t be that hard, but it’s about the terrain, the stamina, and everything. But that’s the thing — you can’t do this sport and think that every time you show up it’ll be like, ‘YEAH!’ Sometimes, it’s a bit like, ‘meh, okay…’ But I rode here today and really felt like — I belong!”
There were some notable fallers throughout the day, perhaps none more so than dressage leaders Mark Todd and Kiltubrid Rhapsody. They say that history repeats itself, but it was rather a cruel blow that Mark should have to walk home under the weight of the same fate two years in a row: last year, he led the dressage with Leonidas II, and in both of those instances, his chances of victory hit the deck with him. This time, it was a surprisingly innocuous fence that caused the problem. After pulling off the save of the day at the Leaf Pit, it was the Gurkha Kukri, a single and simple fence at 10, that tipped both he and his horse up. Both walked away — but the chance of a record-equalling sixth win at the Lincolnshire venue was dashed.
Sole German representative Andreas Dibowski was sixth after dressage with FRH Butts Avedon, and the hugely experienced combination looked set to be a formidable pair today. But they came unstuck astonishingly early — the Rolex Grand Slam angled rails at number 6 didn’t, perhaps, offer the most immediately obvious trajectory, but Dibo and his longtime partner misread them entirely, activating the jump’s frangible devices and causing the German to get rather too familiar with the ‘carpet-like’ ground.
France’s Cedric Lyard also had a fall at what had been a fence of little influence through the day. Discovery Valley appeared at fence 5abc this year and, after an uncomfortable jump over the first element, Cedric was catapulted into the open ditch in front of the next element. Qatar du Puech Rouget then stumbled, propelled forward by inertia, and followed him in. It looked, for a moment, like an incredibly unpleasant accident — one reminiscent of the battle of Waterloo, with its reams of cavalry cascading into false ditches, on top of hapless foot soldiers, and probably entirely devoid of rambling and inane historical references. How, though, can a man survive his horse crashing down on top of him, with the forces of gravity and horsepower working double-time against him? With a bit of je ne sais quois.
“That was a f***ing stupid jump to ride so badly at,” he said, emerging with a particularly Gallic shrug and nary a scratch from the ditch.
Tomorrow begins bright and early with the final horse inspection at 9.00am BST/4.00am EST — we’ll bring you a full gallery and all the updates live as it happens. We’ll also be bringing you an in-depth look at how the showjumping might play out, so buckle up, tune in, and let’s bring this Burghley home!
In the meantime — go Tim, and GO EVENTING!